March 15, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 264

Counter-Rallies By Islamist Groups In Pakistan On International Women's Day

March 15, 2021 | By Tufail Ahmad*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 264


Across the Islamic world, not only in Pakistan, it is the Islamic clerics who feel the most threatened when women leave their homes and go out into the streets, shops, and offices. On March 8, 2021, women's organizations in Pakistan held rallies in different towns, as they do every year on International Women's Day,  to press ahead with a charter of demands aimed at improving women's lives. However, Islamist groups and mainstream religious organizations published reports and editorials and made statements against the women's rights activists, and held parallel rallies to counter International Women's Day. This paper looks into the Islamists' responses, especially the campaign launched by the Urdu daily Roznama Ummat, which is seen as a torchbearer for jihadi forces in Pakistan.

Women's Day marchers carried slogans such as: "Speak up because lips are free"; "Not honor, a woman is a human being." Image: Roznama Express, March 9, 2021.

Although women's rallies and events have always taken place in Pakistan, the Aurat March ("Woman's March") is a new series of women's events and marches that began on March 8, 2018, across towns and cities in Pakistan. The women's rights activists are united under the banner of the Aurat March, which is more of a rights movement than an organization. Among the leading women's non-governmental organizations that lead this movement are the Women's Democratic Front and the Women's Action Front.

On March 8, rallies and events led by women and joined by men were held in different cities across Pakistan, including Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, and Multan. According to a report by the Urdu daily Roznama Express, some of the slogans and issues raised by those attending the rallies included: demands for tax concessions on women's sanitary pads and contraceptives; equal rights for gay communities; an end sexual harassment; equal right for daughters in parental property; and an end to honor killings.[1] Participants of the rallies raised slogans such as: "My body, my will"; "Patriarchy unacceptable"; and "I am mother and sister, not abuse."[2]

Islamist Groups' Fake Allegations Against Women's Rights Activists

Such demands and slogans raised by women's rights groups are seen in Pakistani society as counter to the message of Islam. The mainstream Islamic religious groups as well as Islamists active on social media responded to these rallies by levelling false blasphemy charges and by publishing doctored and fake messages. The most prominent member speaking in favor of Islamist groups was Shireen Mazari, Pakistan's federal minister for human rights. She said: "Women in Pakistan are struggling for those rights given by the religion [of Islam]. In European countries, the ban on hijab is their society's double-standard because this a right of Muslim women [to wear a veil]."[3]

On March 11, Geo TV host Shahzeb Khanzada summed up the criticism against those attending the women's rights rallies: "Three days have gone since the Aurat March. But after the march, instead of talking about women's rights and the atrocities being committed against minorities in the country, a false propaganda is being carried out against the Aurat March. The propaganda against the Aurat March is not new. Every year criticism is hurled... against the Aurat March on some or other point. But this year, since there were no credible charges, religion was used against the Aurat March. Videos and audios were doctored. Allegations of blasphemy were levelled. Since there were no arguments left, religious sentiments and hatred were used as a weapon."[4]

In Lahore, the Aurat March laid out a blanket featuring the "#MeToo" hashtag, on which affected women shared their experiences of sexual abuse (, March 8, 2021).

On his talk show, Khanzada went into the issues. At a rally in Lahore, affected women wrote their experiences on a blanket featuring the "#MeToo" hashtag. One such experience read: "I was nine years old. He was 50 years old. I was silenced. And his voice fills the air in the mosque even today."[5] Khanzada notes that this was simply a case of sexual violence against children, but Islamist groups turned it into a case of blasphemy, forcing the Aurat March organizers to issue a clarification because blasphemy is a crime punishable by death under Pakistani laws. In response, the organizers said they were drawing attention to the issue of sexual violence against children, noting that in 2019 alone, there were 2,846 cases of such violence against children as reported in the Pakistani media.[6]

In another case, the flag of the Women's Democratic Front (WDF) – a socialist, feminist organization – seen in one of the rallies was presented in a doctored video as a flag of France, which is nowadays viewed negatively by the Pakistani masses after its crackdown against jihadi and Islamist groups in French society and the publication in France of controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.[7] The video insinuated that the Women's Democratic Front is funded and supported by France.  

A commentator, speaking on television, levelled charges that the flag is that of France and, since the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad were printed in France, using the French flag also constituted an act of blasphemy – a far stretch of logic.[8] In a video presentation for the benefit of viewers, the WDF contrasted its flag with that of the French flag, and noted that as an organization it is opposed to all imperialist forces and there could not be any question of using the flag of any imperialist country like France.[9]

Women Democratic Front's flag was doctored to level a blasphemy charge.

On his show, Khanzada reproduced some past statements of Islamic scholars regarding fake blasphemy charges. Noted Islamic cleric Mufti Taqi Usmani said: "In principle, if anyone has levelled allegations, under any law, any allegations of crime, especially regarding the blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad, then it is his responsibility to provide evidence [of such a blasphemous act being committed]. There is no doubt about it."[10]

Mufti Raghib Naeemi, another Islamic cleric, stated: "To fulfil someone's personal agenda, no person can be held guilty of committing blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad. And if someone does it, there is punishment set out for him under the law and in shari'a too."[11] Mufti Muhammad Naeem said: "The blasphemy against the prophet is a crime. But without evidence, to level such an allegation against anyone, this is a crime in law, and in shari'a..."[12]

Shi'ite cleric Muhammad Amin Shaheedi said: "There are clear orders in the Koran and pious hadiths [traditions of Muhammad] that if someone commits blasphemy against Islam, against the religion, against Prophet Muhammad, then what... punishments should be for him... If someone fails to prove such an allegation against an innocent person, the punishment for him is also similarly severe. If someone becomes a cause of an innocent person's death [as is the punishment for blasphemy], then he becomes responsible for the murder of all of humanity."[13]

Urdu Daily Roznama Ummat Launches Attacks Against Women's Rights Groups

Roznama Ummat – an Urdu daily known for favoring Islamist and jihadi groups – launched its own campaign against the Aurat March rallies. On International Women's Day, it published an article titled "Strong and Stable Family – a Safeguard for Social Welfare and Reform" by Sirajul Haq, the emir of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan.[14]

Haq, who is also a senator, wrote: "Women are being exploited in the name of equality"; "NGOs working for women's protection are part of the conspiracies against women"; "the institution of the family is destroyed as a result of these conspiracies"; "even in co-educational universities and colleges our girls are not safe"; "a woman's real liberty is only in the system given by Allah"; and "men and women cannot get their due rights without an Islamic system."[15]

An image from a doctored video published by Roznama Ummat on March 10, 2021.

The thrust of Haq's article is that the Aurat March rallies are weakening the family system envisaged by Islam. The Jamaat-e-Islami chief declared that his party launched a campaign on February 11 for the defense of Muslim women and party members would also organize rallies – in opposition to the Aurat March rallies on March 8 – for defending the institution of family as prescribed by shari'a. In the article, Haq also lashed out against the Western culture and demanded a total ban on certain television programs, stating: "The Pakistani [television] dramas that are engaged in destroying the family system should be banned."[16]

The Jamaat-e-Islami leader also accused Pakistani television of promoting obscenity and Western culture, saying: "Some Pakistani TV channels have made it a duty to destroy Pakistani culture and to spread Western culturalism. These channels have decided to destroy the Islamic civilization and eastern culture of dignity, honor, and modesty."[17]

On March 9, a day later, Roznama Ummat published on its frontpage pictures of counter-rallies that women who are members of religious groups held to defend the social values of family stability, modesty, and honor for women, presupposing that only the Islamist groups, not the women's rights activists who took part in the Aurat March rallies, uphold these values.[18] The editors of Roznama Ummat, which is viewed as a torchbearer for Islamist forces in Pakistani society and is considered close to the Pakistani military, wrote in an editorial: "Yesterday, individuals of liberal ideology held 'Aurat March' rallies in many towns. In 2018, for the first time, a rally was organized in Karachi under this theme [of Aurat March] after which this ugly ritual has spread to the country's big cities."[19]

"On this occasion, the shameless demands that are written on banners and placards, no pious man can utter them," the editors said, adding that Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan too organized events to mark it as Modesty Day ("Haya Day").[20] According the editorial, the Modesty Day participants carried banners with slogans such as: "The destruction of our family system is the enemy's agenda"; "wife and husband are not competitors, but helpers"; and "let me live at home."[21] The editorial, while noting that Muslim women have always risen to defend themselves such as in Kashmir and Palestine, also went on to describe America as "the international policeman whose hands are colored by the blood of innocent women."[22]

Roznama Ummat: "Whatever Happened In Lahore Was Not The Woman's Freedom March – It Was A Direct Attack On Prophet Muhammad And His Wives"

On March 10, Roznama Ummat published an image on its frontpage from a doctored video in which the WDF's flag was presented as the flag of France. The Islamist newspaper captioned the photo with the following words: "The flags of France and LGBT, the international organization [sic] active for the promotion of homosexuality, flying during the Aurat March."[23] It also published a frontpage report alleging that the organizers of the Aurat March used blasphemous posters.[24]

The Islamist daily also noted that a person sought to register a blasphemy case with the police in Lahore against Tooba Syed and her team, who organized the rally, and similar police cases were being contemplated by religious activists.[25] Tooba Syed is an academic and women's rights activist who, in a 2019 interview about the success of the Aurat March rallies, declared: "At some point I felt bad for the men. Everything they thought was being dismantled."[26] Roznama Ummat also published allegations by social media activists like Salar Suleman that those attending the rallies, organized by Tooba Syed, were guilty of blasphemous acts against Prophet Muhammad and other prominent personalities of early Islam.[27]

On March 11, Roznama Ummat carried its campaign further, publishing multiple reports on its frontpage, all of which alleged blasphemous acts by the Aurat March organizers. One of the reports began with the following sentence: "Whatever happened in Lahore was not the woman's freedom march – it was a direct attack on Prophet Muhammad and his wives [considered mothers by Muslims], and our mother Ayesha Siddiqa."[28] At the rally in Lahore, affected women wrote their experiences of sexual violence on a #MeToo blanket – one of which, Roznama Ummat pointed out, was: "I was 9 years old. He was 50. I was silenced. And his voice even today fills the air in mosque."[29]

Uzma Gul: "We will not allow the Aurat March in future" (Roznama Ummat, March 12, 2021).

Roznama Ummat's frontpage report proceeded to identify that this incident was that of Ayesha Siddiqa, the youngest wife of Prophet Muhammad, and "may Allah sink their boat" and "they burn in the fire of hell in this world."[30] Demanding action against the organizers, the Urdu daily said that the organizers had committed a crime and must be punished, or the 220 million Muslims of Pakistan would sacrifice their lives for the defense of the honor of Prophet Muhammad.[31] A second report on the frontpage on the same day, March 11, noted that religious organizations like Jamaat-e-Islami, the Sunni Tehreek, and the Tehreek-e-Labbaik have become active to pressure the government to ban the Aurat March.[32]

According to the report, these religious organizations said: "Such programs [i.e., women's rallies] are a conspiracy to thrust the western agenda [on Pakistan]. By flying the French flag, by targeting the pious personalities [of Islam], a few liberal and free-minded women have wounded the hearts of the entire Ummah. The blasphemy against the religion of Islam and pious personalities will never be tolerated."[33] A third report on Roznama Ummat's frontpage quoted Islamist lawyers as saying that "obscenity is being promoted through the Aurat March."[34] A fourth report on its frontpage quoted Hafiz Hussain Ahmed, a leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, as saying that opposition political parties had adopted silence on the issue of blasphemous acts committed in the Aurat March rallies.[35]

Roznama Ummat: "The Blasphemy Of The Prophet [Muhammad] Is A Bigger Crime Than Terrorism"

Roznama Ummat also published a series of articles and an editorial on March 11, each of which criticized the Aurat March organizers. Its March 11 editorial accused the government of permitting blasphemous acts in the "State of Medina," an expression equating Pakistan with the first Islamic state of Medina established by Prophet Muhammad.[36] Regarding the issue surrounding the age of Ayesha Siddiqa, the editorial noted: "For the first time, such satanism was played in the Aurat March that every Muslim's heart is crying tears of blood."[37] In a frontpage report on March 12, Roznama Ummat admitted that the organizers "did not mention the name of the prophet and the mother of Muslims [Ayesha Siddiqa] in order to escape the blasphemy laws."[38]

The Islamist daily published another report the very next day, March 12, declaring in a headline on its frontpage: "The Blasphemy Of The Prophet Is A Bigger Crime Than Terrorism."[39] Its frontpage on March 12 carried reports hostile to the Aurat March organizers. One report quoted Uzma Gul, daughter of Pakistan's late intelligence chief and Afghan jihad mastermind Hameed Gul, vowing to take legal action against the Aurat March organizers and declaring in an exclusive interview: "Next year, we will not allow the Islam-enemy march to happen."[40]

The concerted campaign by Roznama Ummat to implicate the organizers of the Aurat March did not stop. On March 13, the Urdu daily literally filled up its frontpage with reports and pictures of protests against the Aurat March organizers. One of the reports declared that the Shuhda Foundation, a charity, decided to go to court to pursue blasphemy charges against the organizers of the Aurat March.[41] Another frontpage report noted that more than 50 mosques in Karachi had adopted resolutions against the Aurat March organizers and demanded their prosecution on blasphemy charges.[42]

In several more reports on its frontpage, Roznama Ummat quoted religious leaders, such as those from Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat Ahle Hadith, that they would pursue legal cases against the Aurat March leaders.[43] On March 14 and 15, the Islamist daily continued its campaign for launching blasphemy charges against the Aurat March organizers by publishing reports and photos of religious leaders, from the Sunni Tehreek and Tahaffuz Namoos-e-Risalat, demanding prosecution.[44] On March 14, Pakistan's religious affairs minister Pir Noorul Haq Qadri declared that the government would investigate the controversial banners and messages, and promised prosecution of them as well as of those who were engaged in fake allegations.[45] This simple campaign for women's rights and freedom is transforming into warfare in Pakistan.

Images Of Counter-Rallies And Protests Organized By Islamist Groups

Following are images from the counter-rallies and subsequent protests by Islamist and religious organizations in Pakistan with the objective of countering the International Women's Day and demanding criminal prosecution of the Aurat March organizers.

In Lahore, members of the Islamist group Tahaffuz-e-Namoos-e-Risalat Mahat ("Front for the Defense of the Prophet's Honor") organized a "Message for Shame and Modesty March" to counter the women's rights groups (Roznama Express, March 9, 2021).

On March 12, Jamaat-e-Islami members organized a protest at the Islamabad Press Club against the Aurat March organizers. The banner reads: "The organizers of the Aurat March must be punished for the blasphemy against Islam" (Roznama Ummat, March 13, 2021).

In Karachi, women of the Barelvi group Sunni Tehreek burn the posters of Aurat March activists to counter International Women's Day (Roznama Dunya, March 9, 2021).

In Lahore, Sirajul Haq, emir of Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, addressed a "Stability of Family Rally" to counter the International Women's Day (Roznama Express, March 9, 2021).

In Multan city, religious women brought out a "Stability of Family" rally to counter the International Women's Day (Roznama Dunya, March 9, 2021).

In Lahore, the Barelvi organization Sunni Tehreek protest the Aurat March organizers (Roznama Ummat, March 13, 2021).

Talat Naseer Pasha, vice chancellor of the University of Education in Lahore, led a "Modest Women's March" (Roznama Express, March 9, 2021).

Religious group Tahaffuz Namoos-e-Risalat holds a protest at the Lahore Press Club against the Aurat March leaders (Roznama Ummat, March 14, 2021).

In Karachi, religious organization Tehreek-e-Paigham-e-Mustafa holds a protest demanding action against the Aurat March organizers (Roznama Ummat, March 13, 2021).


* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow at MEMRI


[1] Roznama Express (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[2] Roznama Express (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[3] Roznama Express (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[4], March 11, 2021.

[5], March 11, 2021.

[6], March 11, 2021.

[7], March 12, 2021.

[8], March 11, 2021.

[9], March 12, 2021.

[10], March 11, 2021.

[11], March 11, 2021.

[12], March 11, 2021.

[13], March 11, 2021.

[14] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 8, 2021.

[15] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 8, 2021.

[16] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 8, 2021.

[17] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 8, 2021.

[18] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[19] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[20] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[21] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[22] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 9, 2021.

[23] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 10, 2021.

[24] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 10, 2021.

[25] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 10, 2021.

[26], August 7, 2019.

[27] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 10, 2021.

[28] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[29] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[30] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[31] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[32] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[33] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[34] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[35] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[36] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[37] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 11, 2021.

[38] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 12, 2021.

[39] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 12, 2021.

[40] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 12, 2021.

[41] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 13, 2021.

[42] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 13, 2021.

[43] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 13, 2021.

[44] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 14 & 15, 2021.

[45] Roznama Ummat (Pakistan), March 15, 2021.

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